Excursions: Hood Canal


Before seasonal rains and clouds grip our Pacific Northwest, uou might want to get out to several nearby scenic corners on the Olympic Peninsula.  Hood Canal is my first choice.  Of course, the majestic Olympic Mountains (where mysterious Goblins reside) is the backdrop, and a floating bridge, oyster beds and ten shades of green frame the scene.  But look more closely.

Among the withered blackberry vines are tiny villages that could just as well be strewn along Central European ridges or above Germany’s Mainz River.  The Big Names of course are Port Angeles, Port Townsend and Bremerton, but if you are seriously investigating our gloomy, quiet fall, look for the charming settlements of Coyle, Shine, Hadlock, Irondale, Brinnon, and ghostly Dungeness. 

In 1792, English captain George Vancouver left us a cursory but enticing record of this region, much of it cribbed from the notes of his boss and mate, Lord Samuel Hood and Lieutenant Peter Puget.  At Discovery Bay near today’s Foulweather Bluff, Vancouver experienced a “sunshine belt,” wih only approximately 16 inches of annual precipitation, now claimed by the busy burgeoning community of Sequim. 

Fifty miles south of Sequim annual rainfall registers over 150 inches – a dizzying gap of climate within a few miles of each other.  Those drizzles, high or low, nurture a bounty of rhododendron, Washington state’s official flower, and favor the lowland skunk cabbage, a legume once used by Indians as food (and the large leaves as eating plates).

Vancouver described the Natives (likely Twana tribes of Hood Canal) as clever and industrious.  Legends hint that this is where the most durable Native lodges and fish weirs were built.  The Chemakum tribe, a small, fierce band near today’s Hadlock and Port Ludlow, may have been the first non-white human observers of Vancouver’s reconnoiter of “Hood’s Channel.”

After Vancouver sailed home to England — allowing other adventurous Euro-Americans to dig clams, splash in the cold waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and build bungalows along the gurgling streams — a new breed of visitor sailed into view.  Next in line was Lt. Charles Wilkes, skipper of an American scientific exploration of what many thought would be the “other” great American West Coast port after San Francisco Bay.

At the turn of the century Puget Sound became a haven for free-thinkers, religious crusaders, and utopians.  Freeland, deriving its name from the Free Land Association, an offshoot of lower Puget Sound’s Burley Colony, enjoyed a short life on Whidbey Island, directly across from the entrance to Hood Canal.  Members of Port Angeles’ Puget Sound Co-operative Colony in 1887 sent an expedition to Hood Canal to catch and salt salmon.  The die was cast: younger visitors continued to wander through Puget Sound country to “do their own thing.”  Among the results were small shops, restaurants, artistic programs, farmer’s markets, and cooperative food marts (take a look at Port Townsend for the best offspring examples).

The Mountaineers and other groups often hosted explorations into the Cascade foothills or far reaches of the Olympic rain forest to see the myriad colors of Pacific Northwest deciduous trees – a late Fall show of shows.  You might augment this by embarking on a trip along the shore of Hood Canal or through the Center or Chimacum Valleys.

In the high country, elk and huckleberries appear, with black bear searching for the blue-red berry patches.  Nearer the Canal, maple, alder and other limbs and trunks are ablaze with autumn hues and scampering animals.  It’s exciting to find these species, which are often “lost” among the more dominant spruce, fir, cedar, and hemlock – the kings and queens of Puget Sound.

As you meander the Canal and nearby bays and villages, keep in mind that others were here before your day.  Besides the 12,000-year Native world, and later Euro-American explorers, writer James Stevens’ books about Paul Bunyon and his companion, Babe the Blue Ox, describe how these giants of legend rearranged this undulating water-and-mountain puzzle.  Besides, who can avoid spending a few hours or days in towns with names like Hamma Hamma, Dosewallips, and Lilliwaup?

Welcome to Hood Canal, and note that the waters are a reflective pool, then a maelstrom. It remains, in George Vancouver’s words, “this delightful country.”

Junius Rochester
Junius Rochester
Junius Rochester, whose family has shaped the city for many generations, is an award-winning Northwest historian and author of numerous books about Seattle and other places.


  1. My ancestors, Cephas Woodcock of Guemes, the Meaghers and Beckers and others, were part of the early settlement of the state, and some were members of the early communal lifestyle of the area around Port Townsend and Anacortes. Early hippies, I suppose, who later came to Seattle.

  2. It is way past due to acknowledge that those villages you mention: Port Gamble, Hama Hama, Dosewallips, Lilliwaup, etc., etc., were the villages and rich fishing areas of the indigenous peoples who thrived there.
    Vancouver “allowed” “other adventurous Euro-American explorers to dig clams,…and build bungalows” only in the sense that he “allowed” the genocide of the indigenous tribes and the theft of their land and myriad resources. Enough of paternalistic, amnesiac, nostalgia masquerading as history. It is the responsibility of historians to set the record straight.

  3. My maternal great-grandmother was born in Port Angeles in 1906. Her English/Canadian paternal side were members of the short lived Port Angeles Co-operative Colony. Her English/Scottish maternal side were also attracted to Angeles by a “free land” organizer in the 1880s. I credit my mother’s side for my left leaning political views. Nice to see our interesting (if short) local history remembered.

  4. As always Junius, a beautiful description of our fantastic Peninsula. Lovely; makes me want to grab my box and seek the succulent berries.


  5. Skunk Cabbage is not a legume It’s in the family Araceae. I don’t recommend eating it as it’s toxic to humans and other animals. Even small amounts eaten will cause pain and swelling in the mouth. The Salish did use the large leaves as plates but they didn’t eat it.

  6. As per skunk cabbage: it was supposedly used as an ingredient in an Alaskan cold remedy that included fresh fir tips ( vit. C?), Devil’s club, and other items that my friend’s auntie had us collect. It was brewed into a tea that was consumed after downing some 60w seal oil.
    My sinuses were subsequently evacuated of mucus as if I had been tear gassed. And between military service and residency in downtown Portland, I am far too familiar with CS gas and its effects.
    The severe cold and all its symptoms were gone within 24hrs. However, I did have some lingering seal oil scented burps for a couple of days.


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